Campus News

Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

December 03, 2002

Astronaut, students launch 'Mission to Mars' at U of G

Bob Thirsk, former chief astronaut of the Canadian Space Agency, and a group of local secondary students today launched a new educational program where students learn first-hand about the role plants can play in supporting life on future missions to Mars.

Details of the "Mission to Mars" project were unveiled at the University of Guelph's Controlled Environment Systems (CES) Research Facility, which is designed to sustain life in deep space. The three-year "Mission to Mars" project will involve elementary and secondary students conducting experiments to investigate the effects of the space environment on the growth of food.

Students will grow tomato plants from seeds that have been exposed to environments much like that found on Mars. Some of these seeds will have gone through the Mars environment simulator at Kennedy Space Center; others will have been treated in what scientists expect a Mars greenhouse environment to be like.

"In our quest to travel deeper into space for extended periods, we need to find ways to expand life-support provisions in the limited confines of space vehicles," said Thirsk, a spacecraft communicator for the international space station program. "A plant-based life support system may provide part of the solution." Thirsk was a payload specialist aboard space shuttle mission STS-78 (the Life and Microgravity Spacelab mission), which investigated changes in plants, animals and humans under space flight conditions.

The students' findings will help address the question of how to supply space exploration missions with life-support requirements -- food, water, oxygen and a means of consuming carbon dioxide exhaled by crew members. Travelling to and from Mars, the closest planet to Earth, would take almost 2 years. "Because physical space is a serious issue to space missions, the number of plants that can be grown and the number of people who can be supported for extended periods are limited," said Mike Dixon, a Guelph plant agriculture scientist who runs the CES facility. "This research will help determine what types of seeds have the highest potential for germination and growth in space."

The CES facility is the most sophisticated of its kind in the world in the field of advanced life support. It has the highest level of Canadian technology in controlled environment systems research, containing 14 hypobaric (reduced pressure) chambers. The chambers allow researchers to study the contributions of plants in supporting human life during long-term space missions such as that to Mars.

The Mission to Mars project is a followup to the successful "Tomatosphere" projects, which involved Dixon and Thirsk and had students comparing seeds that had travelled in outer space with those that stayed on Earth. It is sponsored by Heinz Canada, the Canadian Space Agency, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, CRESTech, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the University of Guelph.

Prof. Mike Dixon
Department of Plant Agriculture
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 2555

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